Wednesday, January 09, 2008


"The most terrifying sound in the world is not the scream of a descending bomb nor the roar of a charging lion, but rather a click when you expected to hear a bang." Peter Hathaway Capstick

A brief aside from politics here to cater to us gun nuts. I just finished an excellent book entitled US Infantry Weapons in Combat, and to a man the soldiers and Marines from WWII and Korea had nothing but praise for the old M1 Garand. Darrell "Shifty" Powers of Band of Brothers fame said, "The most amazing thing about that M1 is you could throw that thing down in a mud hole, drag it through, pick it up and it would fire. It wouldn't jam; it would fire" and "In combat, when you were right on the line you don't take time out to clean the rifle. You just keep the mud and dirt wiped off the outside of it the best you can." Master Sergeant Earl Green, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, said, "I really liked the M1; it was a tremendous rifle and it never failed me." Wade Stevens, another Korean veteran, stated "...I had real faith with that rifle. It could get all dirtied up, muddy or full of dust and you could shake it out and it would work. It never failed me; it was a very durable weapon."

As fewer and fewer people these days know, the original M16 was a bit of a flop in Vietnam, prone to chronic jamming. A Marine squad was found dead near Khe Sahn with all their weapons jammed and cleaning rods down the bore. The late Colonel David Hackworth as much as said the 16 was a POS and he would rather have an AK-47. Marine small arms expert Dick Culver claimed they found a VC document that urged the guerrillas to salvage any weapon they could from the battlefield, with the exception of "the little black rifle". Another Marine, Major Anthony Milavic, reported watching a soldier shoot a tethered goat 15 times with an M16 at point blank range before the animal finally dropped. Rather than admit Robert McNamara's One-Man Band might be wrong about the gee-whiz new weapon, the establishment took up the banner that those dumb-ass soldiers in the field just weren't cleaning their weapons enough.

By the time I began my service in the Army, we had the M16A1 rifle, and "all the bugs from Vietnam" had been worked out. Yet even though we spent more time on weapons maintenance than we did standing in line, no small feat in the Army, we still suffered from chronic jamming problems, most often failure to feed. Just me, but I have to wonder if a great deal of the problem was the magazines and their system of retention. Every other major military rifle one can name has two points of retention for the magazine, usually front and rear, while the M16 has only one side-mounted detente.

Anyway, eventually we got the new & improved M16A2. Ours seemed to work well enough, but then again they were brand-spanking new fresh off the assembly line. The first lesson I learned, though, was that it was not a Heavy Barrel like the Army told me it was. Only the last four inches of the barrel was heavy; the rest was as thin and whippy as the M16A1. The reason the art of shooting with a sling has been lost is that the Army's own studies showed shooting an M16 series rifle with a tight sling will pull your shots as much as 4 inches low at 100 yards...which means 8 inches at 200 and 16 inches at 300. Additionally, the weapons manual stated: "You may have to clean weapon and ammunition numerous times daily in inclimate weather." Funny, I don't recall any veteran of WWII or Korea cleaning their rifles numerous times daily in hopes they would actually work.

My son served in the 82nd in Iraq, and he had little good to say about the new M4 carbine's reliability or lethality either. Rangers in Afghanistan were seen with cleaning rods taped to the forearms of their rifles so they could unjam them quickly, just like the Marines in Vietnam before they "fixed all the bugs". There were eventually enough complaints about the M4s and new M16s that it led to a congressional inquiry, so the Army contracted an official study by the CNA Corporation. I read the study. Their conclusion is that the M4 is a fine weapon that the soldiers all love because of its reliability. By their stats, only 19% of soldiers reported malfunctions of their weapon in combat. Whoo-hoo! Now that's a peach! Fully four out of five rifles work as advertised. I guess that is reliable, since their study showed 26% of the soldiers equipped with the M9 Beretta 9-mm (don't even get me started on the 9mm vs .45 ACP thing) had malfunctions in combat and 30% of M249 SAW users did as well.

Of course, this exhaustive study never did get around to the question of lethality of the 5.56x45mm round, known to us civvies as the .223 Remington. It is a varmint round, suitable for coyotes and prairie dogs and woodchucks, but is illegal for deer hunting in most states as the Fish & Game boys say it's not big enough to give a clean, quick kill on deer-sized critters. In Blackhawk Down, a Delta Force expert complained about how many times he had to shoot Sammies with his M4 to get him to finally go down. Similar reports have been coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan especially, the round lacks the range to engage targets at long distances in the mountains. One senior NCO in Operation Anaconda reported that his company could only engage the enemy in plain sight with organic mortars; the only folks who could engage with small arms were some Canadian snipers armed with .50-caliber heavy sniper rifles, visibility and range being what it is in the mountains. Now I see the Marine Corps has revamped their entire marksmanship program and is teaching their folks to double-tap every target in the chest; apparently they don't think one shot is going to do it. I also read of an Army CO recently back from Iraq who had to teach his men to double-tap the enemy in the chest and, if that didn't work, to immediately try for a follow-up head shot.

It amazes me that we can spend billions on the war, and more billions on stealth aircraft and the greatest tanks in the world and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and yet still not be able to field a reliable, hard-hitting rifle even after 40 some years of polishing the turd. But then again, if the VA is any indication, the military doesn't really give a damn about the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) with boots on the ground who's doing all the dirty work anyway.

Personally, if I ever had to go to war again, I'd take either my 1944-manufactured M1 Garand or my FN-FAL. They both go bang when they're supposed to go bang, and that big ol' .308-diameter bullet doesn't require any double-tapping.


Ben said...

As Bawb knows, I got a Ruger 10/22 when I was about 12 or so. As long as the barrel was clear of debris, I considered it clean and yet it never jammed. From age 12 to 18 I NEVER disassembled it and cleaned it thouroughly. (I'm not advocating that by the way.)

It wasn't until I joined the service did I learn that rifles actually require cleaning. My M-16had to be cleaned constantly in order to ensure any reliability at all. It still amazes me that Iowa schoolchildren can field a more reliable weapon that the U.S. military.

Anonymous said...

We've made a lot of progress. At Khe Sahn, Marines died with cleaning rods taped to the forearms of the M16s. Today, Rangers in Afghanistan use zip-ties to securea a cleaning rod to their M4s.